Last night’s GOP debate was a mess. The moderators were terrible — historically terrible. They were biased, they were unprepared, and they infuriatingly combined their incompetence with stereotypically liberal smirking and condescension. But even the best moderation can’t obscure a fundamental failing of the Republican field: There are simply too many candidates in the race. The sheer numbers dilute the conservative message, create an unprofessional atmosphere of on-stage chaos, and diminish the candidates as they’re often reduced to shouting for attention like students in an unruly classroom.
Yes, I understand ambition. I also understand hope – especially when filtered not only through fans and supporters who believe the candidate’s breakout moment is just around the corner but also through the candidates’ own political history of triumph, sometimes against long odds. The presidency is the job of their dreams, they think they can win, and they also feel that it will be best for the nation they love if they’re in the Oval Office rather than their rivals.
Moreover, they can make a case for hanging in just a bit longer. After all – if you’re an establishment candidate like Jeb Bush – can’t you argue that John McCain was dead in the water in 2007, right until he came roaring back to win the nomination? If you’re a low-polling insurgent, wasn’t Rick Santorum barely registering in the polls – even in Iowa – before emerging as the last Romney-alternative standing and the runner-up in 2012? And aren’t most of the politician-candidates having trouble believing that the Trump and Carson surges are any more concrete than the Michele Bachmann and Herman Cain boomlets of 2011? In other words, in their minds almost 50 percent of the Republican primary electorate is still functionally up for grabs.
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So they stay . . . but at some point, hope has to yield to reason, and even candidates who believe they still have a chance should step aside. Is there a plausible case that any of the candidates in the undercard debates will move even to the middle of the pack in a crowded field, much less to the center lectern on the main stage? The back of the pack is on the verge of Dumb and Dumber thinking, where a one-in-a-million shot is enthusiastically interpreted as a “chance” to win:
Moreover, the McCain model is misleading – a look at the 2008 race shows that he was leading (decisively) at this point in 2007, and with the exception of a brief Huckabee surge actually led throughout the vast majority of the campaign cycle. The Bush campaign is on life support, and even if Trump and/or Carson fade, it’s hard to see their supporters migrating to Bush and not Cruz, Rubio, or Fiorina.
It’s hard to watch dreams die, and it takes no small amount of integrity and selflessness to follow Scott Walker and Rick Perry’s path – to acknowledge that a small chance of victory isn’t worth the certainty of further division, further campaign confusion, dilution of precious fundraising resources, and yet more debate chaos. Multiple GOP campaigns are on life support. It’s time to start pulling plugs.